I thought long and hard about whether to write this piece, before realising the thing holding me back was the very thing we need to tackle: the shame and stigma around disability. My reluctance comes from a place of fear. Because while I know my condition doesn’t set me back at all, others might not see it the same way.
Authors want an agent who will go to the barricades for them: a tough negotiator and reliable comrade-in-arms. We are expected to be infallible, and a disability—or an admission of one—feels like it counters that image. It might suggest a weakness or an inability to perform the job to the same degree as a non-disabled person, which would be devastating in a job where we compete to represent the best talent. It feels as though admitting that I might need more allowance than someone else will count against me. But I was convinced by the articles I have admired from my publishing colleagues-—Viking’s Katy Loftus [who wrote about mental health] and Rachel Mills Literary agent Nelle Andrew’s in particular. The responses have always been empathetic, and their openness has felt like a necessary call for change, so here I am.
Out of office
I had lunch with an editor and friend recently, who made the good point that by writing this, I would be disclosing a little more of myself to an industry that already expects so much, professionally and personally. It’s mad that we live in a world where (pre-pandemic) you still went to work if you were ill, and being ill is almost seen as a personal failing. This isn’t just a publishing issue, it’s a capitalist one, but don’t get me started on that.
But it is normal to be ill. It is not shameful to admit it, or to take a day off to rest without having one eye on your emails. And it doesn’t mean you need to work harder, or prove you have earned your place, if you need more flexibility than others. We don’t need to give all of ourselves, all of the time. We are pushing ourselves to the brink of our capabilities and it’s important to take the pressure off the demand to be constantly “on”—to separate our professionalism from our health, and to give more flexibility to those who do have a disability or a medical condition. The past 18 months have shown how fragile our health is. Any of us could fall ill at any time, and the more we open up, the better we can support one another.
I’m lucky that I work for a company that has always understood and accommodated my needs, but not every company is as supportive. After a relapse in 2015, I was rushed to hospital and that same day, my boss at the time DM’d me on Twitter to ask when I would be back in the office. My condition is stable now, and largely invisible, so I’m sure there have been worse experiences for those with more visible disabilities, or for those who aren’t also white, straight and cis, like I am.
A flexible future
We cannot let these practices continue, nor lose the workplace flexibility that has emerged over the past year. Disabled workers, and writers, were finally able to see a place for themselves in an incredibly closed industry.
We have seen that flexible hours and work locations-—aided by supportive technology—are all possible and easily accessible, which immediately opens up the industry to more talent. By offering this support upfront, rather than those with disabilities having to ask for it, we are creating a more diverse workforce. We can generally be much better at accepting and normalising sick days, or weeks, without seeing them as a reflection on our ability or professionalism. In fact, our disabilities, and our differences, can sometimes be our greatest strengths. Yes, I need to manage my health in a way others don’t, but my disability also gives me perspective; it makes me even more tenacious and determined, and I know I am a better agent for it.
This isn’t just about making publishing a safe place for those with disabilities to work in. It’s also about ensuring that disabled writers know there is space for them, not only to be part of the industry but to thrive in it. I read a submission last year—Diary of a Magpie by Marie-Claire Amuah (Oneworld)—and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen my condition reflected in a novel, or spoken to someone outside of the medical profession who knows what my illness is. It was emotional and overwhelming, but it also reassured me that I wasn’t alone.
I hope the writers and publishing hopefuls who read this article understand that we are hungry for their work and insight, and that we want to hear their voices. It’s nothing new to say representation and visibility matter—we’re all constantly talking about it. We now need to put it into action.
Hayley Steed is a literary agent. She joined the MM Agency in 2016 and was named a Rising Star by The Bookseller in 2019.